4. The tricky ethics of neurotech
As the science of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and other neurotechnologies progresses, researchers are calling for ethical guidelines to be established now — before the technology fully matures, Axios' Bryan Walsh and I write.
Why it matters: We’re still far away from technologies that fully access and even read the human brain, but the sheer power of such tools — and the highly personal data they could gather — means society needs to determine what they should do before they actually can do it.
What’s happening: Columbia University’s NeuroRights Initiative held a symposium today in conjunction with IBM on the scientific, security and social issues raised by neurotech.
- Today scientists are able to read and write information in the brains of animals, and they’ve developed interfaces that allow humans to move computer cursors and more with only their thoughts.
- In the future, BCIs could provide an unprecedented view of the human brain at work, which in turn could unlock new clinical insights into largely untreatable mental and neurological diseases, as well as change how humans interface with the world.
What they’re saying: The ethical issues raised by that power were the focus of IBM director of research Darío Gil’s symposium remarks, which touched on first-generation ethical principles for neurotech developed by the company.
- “As the power of technology continues to increase, the governance of technology needs to go along with it,” Gil told Axios before the symposium.
- “Every player that develops and creates technology that is at the cutting edge has a responsibility because the purpose of technologies is as a tool to help society.”
Details: Many of the ethical issues created by BCI — questions of transparency and fairness — resemble those raised by AI or even social media, only intensified.
- It’s one thing for tech companies to track what we click on and what we watch, but data generated by the nervous system can be unconscious, which could fatally undermine principles of consent and privacy.
- And neurotechnology could go beyond reading the brain to effectively coding it, feeding it data that could influence thoughts and behaviors, which brings into question core concepts around free will.
How governments will oversee the technology isn’t yet clear, but Gil foresees something for neurotech like the White House Council on Bioethics, which in the past debated policies on stem cells, genetic engineering and more.